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Full text of "Consular Diptychs and Christian Ivories"

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PUBLISHED MONTHLY 



PRICE TEN CENTS 



BULLETIN OF 
THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM 

OF ART 



Volume XIII 



NEW YORK, AUGUST, 1918 



Number 8 



CONSULAR DIPTYCHS AND 
CHRISTIAN IVORIES 

1 HE evolution from the strictly secular 
use of ivory by the Greeks and Romans 
to its employ- 
ment as one 
of the media 
through which 
the story of 
the Christian 
religion was 
told is well epi- 
tomized by a 
few plaques in 
the Pierpont 
Morgan Collec- 
tion, all shown, 
as it happens, 
in the same 
case in the 
room of Byzan- 
tine art. Two 
are leaves of 
a consular dip- 
tych, admira- 
bly perfect 
examples of a 
very early By- 
zantine era, 521 
A. D.; the next 
two belong also 
to a consular 
diptych, of the 
fifth to seventh 
century, but 

have been converted to the use of the 
Church by slight changes in the carving; 
the last two are plaques, of the tenth to 
eleventh century, frankly religious in char- 
acter, showing scenes familiar in Christian 
iconography. 

Copyright, 1918, by The Metropolitan Museum of Art 




IVORY PLAQUE, BYZANTINE 
X-XI CENTURY 



The word "diptych, of course, means a 
book, 'tablet,' or pamphlet of two leaves. 
It is a pure Greek word; and being also 
official, we rightly trace its use to the years 
succeeding Constantine, who transferred 

the seat of em- 
pire from Rome 
to Byzantium 
(Constantino- 
ple), afterwhich 
time Greek ra- 
pidly became 
the official lan- 
guage. The Ro- 
mans, always 
tenacious of an- 
cient forms, 
continued long, 
even under the 
Empire, to elect 
consuls, and it 
became cus- 
tomary for 
these magis- 
trates on their 
election to pre- 
sent to the em- 
peror, the sena- 
tors, and their 
friends, some- 
times even to 
their powerful 
clients, as me- 
morials of their 
election, and 
of the games 
which they gave in its honor, ivory dip- 
tychs, or folding tablets, bearing their 
'image and superscription,' together with 
various figures and designs." 1 The inner 

1 Guide to the Loan Exhibition of the J. Pier- 
pont Morgan Collection, pp. 14-15. 



171 



BULLETIN OF THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART 



surfaces of the leaves were covered with a 
thin layer of wax, on which the history of 
the consul, his achievements and honors, 
might be scratched by means of a sharp 
instrument called a style. 

The leaves of a true consular diptych 
here shown belong to a series of about 
fifty examples of these important historical 
monuments. The inscription at the top 
of the left leaf "records the name of Flavius 
Petrus Sabbatius Justinianus, who was 



the necessary erasures and substitutions, 
for recording her illustrious ones, inscribing 
them with the names of the local martyrs 
and patrons, the local bishop and reigning 
emperor, and generally with the catalogues 
of living and dead to be specially com- 
memorated at Mass." 

In close proximity to the veritable con- 
sular diptych just described are the "two 
leaves of a 'converted' one, or, perhaps, a 
later copy of an old one, in which the classic 




9 MT 



m> 







CONSULAR DIPTYCH, IVORY 
521 A.D. 



Consul Ordinarius, that is, gave his name 
to the year, in 521. Each leaf bears also 
an inscription within a garland, addressed 
to the donor's friends and supporters. 
That on the left means, 'Gifts of little 
cost, it's true, but prolific of honors' (which 
might be incriminating in a disputed 
election!): the right reads, M the Consul 
offer these to my Fathers/ that is, 'my 
honored Conscript Fathers' — the Senate. 
"The Church early adopted the use of 
such diptychs, sometimes, indeed, the 
very consular ones themselves, making 



types have been made to do duty for 
Christian heroes. It certainly antedates 
the creation of traditional Christian types, 
and it is hard to recognize in the smooth- 
faced youths of the diptych leaves, those 
rugged and bearded protagonists of the 
Christian church, Saints Peter and Paul. 
Yet such they are, and Saint Peter bears 
his modest keys, and Saint Paul his precious 
volume in hands veiled according to the 
antique and Oriental reverent method." 1 

The two plaques of characteristically 

2 Op. cit., pp. 15-16. 



172 



BULLETIN OF THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART 



Christian subject show each a scene under a 
delicately pierced baldachin — one a Cruci- 
fixion and the other a Death of the Virgin. 
On either side of the cross in the former 
stand the traditional figures of the Virgin 
and Saint John, dignified, noble, yet 
pathetic representations of grief. Im- 
mediately below Christ's feet the Roman 
soldiers are casting lots for His garments, 
and prostrate on the ground beneath is our 
first father, Adam, at the root of the cross, 
the symbolic rood or Tree of Life springing 
from his body. The Saviour seems to be 
looking down at this representative of the 
guilty race with unutterable pity, inclining 
His hands toward him in pardon. 

The Death of the Virgin, the "falling 
asleep," as the Greek inscription here terms 
it, is treated in the manner almost invari- 
ably found in this period. The Golden 
Legend narrates the tradition on which 
the scene is based. The Virgin, now sixty 
years old, learns from an angel of her ap- 
proaching death. Miraculously from every 
direction come the apostles, and the Saviour 
appears in their midst. The Virgin is 
represented as lying on her deathbed, her 
head raised and surrounded by a nimbus. 
At the head and foot of the bed are grouped 
the apostles and disciples in attitudes of 
grief. Saint Paul reverently covers her 
feet after the sacrament of extreme unc- 
tion; Saint Peter bends over her at the 
head, holding his book in one hand and 
with the other probably swinging a censer, 
now broken off, or perhaps steadying a 
candle held in the Virgin's hand. In 
the center stands Our Lord, identified by 
His cruciform nimbus, holding aloft a 
swathed infantile figure, which represents 
the soul of the Virgin. Two angels hover 
above, their hands, devoutly covered with 
their sleeves, outstretched to receive the 
soul. 

It is easy to imagine these two plaques 
as forming appropriate bindings for some 
beautiful illuminated manuscripts on which 
a devout monk had lavished all his skill, or 
as taking their places beside other panels 
on a casket or other article of ecclesiastical 
furniture: such are the probable uses both 
of these and of many more that were to 
come out of the monasteries of Europe; 



for at least a couple of centuries were to 
pass before romance was to vie with re- 
ligion in furnishing themes for the ivory 
worker, the members of the gild to take 
the places of the monks in their produc- 
tion, and the Court to succeed the Church 
as a patron of the arts. 




IVORY PLAQUE, BYZANTINE 
XI CENTURY 



THE DOSSAL OF POPE 
ALEXANDER VII 

A FEATURE of the installation that 
attracts the eye as one enters the Pierpont 
Morgan Wing is the imposing dossal, the 
gift of John Marshall, that hangs sus- 
pended from the gallery at the north end, 
shedding a warm radiance about the 
splendid Spanish alabaster altar with its 
wealth of delicate foliation. As this hang- 
ing has occasioned much interested com- 
ment, a note as to its provenance may 
not be amiss. 

A dossal is an ecclesiastical hanging at 
the back of an altar, although the term is 
sometimes applied to hangings placed at 



173 



BULLETIN OF THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART 



THE LIBRARY— Continued 

Mrs. Virgil D. Morse 
National Academy of Design 
National Museum, Dublin 
Alex. E. Outerbridge, Jr. 
John T. Patching 
John Wanamaker 



Joseph Widener 
Max Williams 



THE DEPT. OF PRINTS 



Anonymous 
Robert Hartshorne 
M. Knoedler&Co. 
Mortimer L. Schiff 
Felix M. Warburg 




leaf of a "converted" consular diptych 
v-vii century 
(see page 172) 



189